Anthrax Case Raises Concerns About Lab Security

Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. i i

On Tuesday, Bruce Ivins, a former researcher at Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., committed suicide after learning investigators were going to charge him with the 2001 anthrax attack. hide caption

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Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md.

On Tuesday, Bruce Ivins, a former researcher at Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., committed suicide after learning investigators were going to charge him with the 2001 anthrax attack.

Security Questionnaire

View the form that federal government workers are required to fill out in order to get national security clearance.

Dr. Bruce Ivins committed suicide earlier this week as the government was about to charge him with killing five people through anthrax-tainted letters in 2001. More than 30 years ago, he was hired to study anthrax vaccines at the Army's Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

David Danley used to work with Ivins and other scientists at Fort Detrick. He says the place was wide open back then.

"There were no locks on the doors, and you could pretty much wander the building without a lot of interference," he says.

It was an academic place, where researchers happened to be studying deadly material.

It wasn't until 1997 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established what it called a select-agent program to regulate "toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety."

"There was a requirement to register the laboratory, not the individual," says Dave Franz, who was the commander of the research center then.

Labs had to register only if they wanted to transfer something like anthrax from one facility to another. Labs keeping the material in one place didn't have to register at all.

Franz says people studying the disease didn't need clearances in order to work with the agents. Some people had clearances to access sensitive intelligence, but in general, the country was more concerned with protecting secret information than dangerous material.

Danley says things changed at the lab only after five people died from anthrax-laced letters in 2001.

"That's when locks went on doors and armed guards and the whole nine yards," he says.

After that, everyone needed security clearances.

By that point, Ivins had been working at the lab for decades. Even then, a background check apparently failed to catch what his therapist has called "a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, and plans."

Everyone who gets a security clearance has to fill out the same form, called an SF-86. The form asks whether the applicant has ever been treated for a mental illness and requires the person to let investigators view private medical records.

"I don't believe that reviewing a person's medical record is part of a typical security investigation unless there is an indication that there's a concern there," says Michael Woods, who used to be chief of national security law at the FBI.

Woods says investigators only find what they look for. And what they look for depends on what the applicant reports and what other people say about that person.

"Any system will miss someone somewhere," he says. "And the alternative here is to have a much higher level of scrutiny for everybody in the system. I don't particularly want investigators going through my medical records if there's not a reason, a security-related reason to do that."

Security investigations already can take as long as 18 months. Reviewing everyone's medical records would make it take even longer. Woods says there's no good way to overcome the human factor either.

People generally don't want to volunteer damning information about themselves, or about others. The result, Woods says, is a system that will always have flaws.

Scientist In Anthrax Case Dead Of Apparent Suicide

Q&A: Behind The Anthrax Investigations

Who was Bruce Ivins, and why was he a target in the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks? Here, a look at the questions surrounding the case.

Timeline: Anthrax Attacks

Read a chronology of who was infected in the anthrax attacks and the FBI's pursuit of the culprit.

Peace Order

Mental health counselor Jean C. Duley requested that the court in Frederick County, Md., issue a type of restraining order against Ivins. Ivins' address has been blacked out to protect his family's privacy.

A senior government scientist who helped investigate the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001 died this week of an apparent suicide amid reports that the Justice Department probe had shifted to him.

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland, according to an obituary in Ivins' hometown newspaper, The Frederick News-Post. The scientist died after taking a massive dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, according to an unidentified colleague of Ivins' quoted in the Los Angeles Times' Friday editions.

Ivins, who had worked for 18 years at the government's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., apparently had been notified that he was to be prosecuted for the deaths connected to the anthrax attacks. Court documents filed in Frederick County, Md., indicated prosecutors may have planned to seek the death penalty.

Ivins' attorney, Paul F. Kemp, said in a statement that his firm had represented the scientist for more than a year.

Kemp maintained that Ivins was innocent and said the pressure of the government investigation led to his client's suicide.

"We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial. The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation. In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death," Kemp said in a statement.

But there were indications that Ivins was psychologically unstable. Mental health counselor Jean C. Duley requested that the court in Frederick County, Md., issue a "peace order" — a type of restraining order — against Ivins earlier this month.

The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service issued a statement saying sophisticated scientific tools have resulted in "significant developments" in the investigation of the anthrax attacks. However, the release said no details could be provided because of obligations to the victims and a court seal preventing disclosure of some information.

Court documents submitted by Duley indicate Ivins had a long history of "homicidal actions, threats and plans."

Notes attributed to Duley on a copy of the peace order obtained by NPR indicated she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1 and that the FBI was going to charge Ivins with five capital murders.

The anthrax was sent through the mail to media organizations and politicians shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, crippling mail service, shutting down a Senate office building and spreading fear of further terrorism. Five people were killed and 17 were sickened by anthrax that was mailed to lawmakers' Capitol Hill offices, television networks in New York and a newspaper office in Florida.

Two postal workers in a Washington mail facility, a New York hospital worker, a Florida photo editor and an elderly Connecticut woman were killed.

Kemp's statement said Ivins had cooperated with the probe for more than six years, using his expertise as a scientist to help the government.

A renowned microbiologist, Ivins had published numerous scholarly works on anthrax. He helped the FBI analyze materials recovered from one of the anthrax-tainted envelopes sent to a U.S. senator's office in Washington, the newspaper said.

Earlier, suspicion centered on another government scientist, Steven Hatfill, who worked in the same Fort Detrick laboratory as Ivins.

In 2002, federal law enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, called Hatfill a "person of interest" in the investigation. A year later, Hatfill sued various Justice Department officials, including Ashcroft. Earlier this year, the Justice Department agreed to pay Hatfill a multimillion-dollar settlement.

Federal investigators began to suspect Ivins in late 2006 after a change in leadership at the FBI prompted a re-examination of the evidence, according to the Times report.

Ivins was facing forced retirement in September, a longtime colleague told the Times. The colleague said Ivins was emotionally fractured by the federal scrutiny.

On July 24, Ivins was released from a facility operated by Sheppard Pratt Health System where he was reportedly being treated for depression.

He is survived by his wife of 33 years and two children.

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